Saturday, June 25, 2016

Energy is pervasive

Blog Post by: Alden Phinney

It's the 21st century, bro. We've got iPads, iPhones, iWatches, iMacs, iNtense agriculture, electric vehicles, solar hydrolysis, renewably charged Teslas, and big friggin windmills to power our iGadgets. Peak of the world, my friend. Coming from coastal California, I’ve long been fed this narrative of the left coast’s environmental and technological superiority in an exceptionally American world populated with neanderthal carbon burners. Have you seen that electric high speed rail proposal, bro? Pretty sweeeeeeet.

That is to say, I arrived in Denmark underwhelmed. Copenhagen airport functions much like any other, with concrete tarmac allowing various sized jets to ascend and descend, and their passengers to embark and disembark, amid a whirlwind of duty-free consumption. Down on the quai, waiting for the train, Paige and I met an Estonian woman. She was an English and German instructor, wife of an old Danish man, and being deported that very same day for lacking a valid visa, leaving her husband, a citizen, to his own devices while she reapplied to the Danish consulate in her home country. Her plight was a heartbreaking reminder of the European Union’s inflexibility regarding eligibility for citizenship; I had similarly been asked to leave the E.U. not 6 months prior while waiting for an Irish passport application surely languishing on some bureaucrat’s desk somewhere. I hope she finds her way back as soon as the winds may blow.
Paige and I caught our transfer train with only seconds to spare, marvelling at our good fortune without questioning why the train was leaving a good four minutes ahead of schedule. While lounging in felt reclining seats, we whizzed by the Danish countryside, pocked with farms, irrigation, and the occasional windmill. It stood in stark contrast to California’s sprawling agricultural infrastructure, viewed most often from a car seat, air conditioned yet stuck in immovable traffic on the highway.
Paige and I stepped off the train, thirsting for potable water after a33333333333 long day of traveling… The only plausible refilling station was a 7-11, where we paid about $4 for a big jug of water. We boarded a ferry belching black smoke to take us to a renowned renewable energy island.
Samsø is an island as technologically advanced as any in the world, and in many ways at the cutting edge of energy innovation. However, being on this idyllic isle has made me realize that a sustainable future will be comprised as much of old technologies and old-fashioned talking as any whizz-bang application of machinery and computers.

Arriving on Samsø, you are struck by the open fields and quaint villages. The island is famous for its potatoes and agricultural products. Vast meadows of herbs and amber grains sway in the ample breezes off the North Sea. Being an agricultural community as well as an island, Samsingers are quick to take matters into their own hands. Samsø’s strength in advancing an energy transition lies in its resilient and resourceful community. The closeness of people to each other and to the land breeds a kind of respect and responsibility that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Being on Samsø, you realize that what we think of as new energy infrastructure, from windmills to solar panels, are building off of an ancient human tradition of harvesting energy from our environments. In fact, the conventional infrastructure of fossil fueled power plants, energy extracted from deep underground, was the outlier in the course of human history. To see the 1 MW turbines chugging along, with the 300 year old wind-mills sitting in their shadows, reminded me of the importance of drawing off of our histories in the fight against climate change.
Bringing my experiences back to the United States, I’m reminded of the disparate histories which different communities know. Denmark was shockingly homogeneous. Access to electricity, education and the internet are widespread; stark reminders of colonialism and slavery are not part of the national character. I was at times doubtful that the community leadership harnessed by the Samsø Energy Academy could be replicated in the United States.
However, I think the tools that Soren, Malene, and the other folks at the Energy Academy and Samsø at large have taught us are replicable in spirit if not entirely in practice. Communities here do not know each other like the people of Samsø know each other; a first step to facilitating this kind of transformative change in our own communities is bridging that which divides us through discussion. Then, acknowledging local leadership as being the best placed to guide, validate and benefit from renewable energy infrastructure; no more wind farms in Northern Maine for the benefit of investors in New Jersey. Localizing our energy supply allows money and jobs to stay in the community impacted, lowering opposition and building buy-in for behavior change as well.

When people see the link between their energy supply and their energy use, they get it. Energy is not something that comes from somewhere else and evaporates into thin air. Energy is pervasive, and it is up to us to harness it. We have the potential to be the first generation to move from energy hunters and gatherers to energy farmers, cultivating our natural resources for our modern lifestyles. Let’s hope our communities are up to the task.